Monday, May 14, 2007

Political beauty contest

New Zealand doesn’t elect its prime minister—it elects Members of Parliament, and they then select the prime minister. So far, that’s meant the leader of the largest party in Parliament.

So when a poll shows who’s the country’s “preferred prime minister,” it’s pretty meaningless—most of the time. A new poll has shown that for the first time in eight years, Prime Minister Helen Clark is not the country’s preferred prime minister; Opposition Leader John Key is.

It gets interesting when the NZ news media speculates on why this is the case. They blame Prime Minister Helen Clark’s support for the “anti-smacking” bill, combined with what’s seen as John Key’s pragmatic search for compromise.

The reason that’s interesting is that it was the media that created the controversy over the “anti-smacking” bill in the first place, by providing little or no true analysis of the bill and instead helping to fan the flames of opposition by those who had a visceral reaction based on a poor (or total lack of) understanding of what the proposed bill would do. And that’s not even counting talk-back radio, whose often hysterical hosts focused their anti-government and anti-Labour Party venom onto that one bill.

This isn’t the first time I’ve criticised the NZ news media over this same issue. But what makes this annoying is the fact that there continues to be no real analysis of public policy or government, nor any historical perspective. For one thing, after eight years in power, it’s to be expected that a prime minister might be suffering in the polls. Historically,
New Zealand voters get a kind of fatigue after a few years and start looking for change. There has also been a media beat-up over economists’ bleatings.

So what does the poll tell us? The “beauty contest” tells us nothing, but the Party poll shows that Labour may be in some trouble—for the moment:

In the TNS poll of decided voters on the party vote, National has 48 per cent (42 last time); Labour 36 (down from 44); New Zealand First 2.4 (1.2); the Greens 8 (6); Act 0.5 (1.3); United Future 0.6 (0.9); and the Maori Party 3.7 (2.7).

Translated to seats (if leaders with electorate seats kept them), National would have 59 seats, Labour 44, the Greens 10, the Maori Party five and one each for Act, United Future and the Progressives. National would need Act and United Future to govern, or the Maori Party.

What’s important to remember, however, is that all polls are nothing but snapshots of a single moment. As the media and public move on to other issues, the poll numbers can reverse, or perhaps become somewhat worse for Labour. Even if that happens, we’re more than a year away from the next election. Time, as they say, will tell.

Meanwhile, retail sales have shown the fastest quarterly growth on record. They’re a good indicator of how people are feeling about things—when they feel things are going badly, they don’t spend; when they feel things are going well, they do spend.

This, combined with property values that continue to rise, paints a picture of a country that’s happier with its condition than the poll numbers reflect. When the election does roll around, people will ask themselves if they want to risk it all, if they want to potentially lose everything that’s going well, in favour of an unknown quantity. That’s a question I’d like to see pollsters explore, but I won’t hold my breath for it.

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